George Hickenlooper's "The Man From Elysian Fields" is a shimmering fable of innocence and experience set in contemporary Los Angeles and Pasadena (its title is a nod to Virgil's "Aeneid"). Phillip Jayson Lasker's tartly knowing script, with the kind of witty dialogue that's all but vanished from American movies, recalls Hickenlooper's "The Low Life" in its depiction of the struggle to make it in L.A., and, as a romantic odyssey, Hickenlooper and film critic F.X. Feeney's Orson Welles adaptation, "The Big Brass Ring."
"The Man From Elysian Fields," however, represents a substantial advance for Hickenlooper in assurance and clarity. With its poetic, moody camera work by Kramer Morgenthau, a frequent Hickenlooper collaborator, this is an elegant film with often surprising twists and an intermingling of naiveté and sophistication. It is bolstered by a dream cast: Andy Garcia, Mick Jagger, Julianna Margulies, Olivia Williams, James Coburn and Anjelica Huston.
Garcia's Byron Tiller is a former advertising man who threw over his career to devote seven years to writing "Hitler's Child," in which he imagines that Hitler and Eva Braun had a son who was then raised in Argentina. Improbable as it seems, the novel received some good reviews, but soon vanished off the shelves.
Tiller, his wife Dena (Margulies) and their small son live in a messy, run-down cottage with a dirt frontyard in one of Pasadena's seedier sections. Dena has been a rich man's rebellious daughter who remains passionately in love with her husband and takes a romantic view of poverty.
When Byron's latest manuscript--in which King Arthur's sword Excalibur is symbolic of hope for a group of migrant workers--fails to excite his agent, he understands how tough it's going to be to support a family. But he's had a chance encounter with Luther Fox (Jagger), a well-tailored, well-spoken Brit with an office on the same floor as Byron's agent in a fine old Hollywood Boulevard building.
Suave and insinuating, Luther has actually read "Hitler's Child," admiring the writing but dismissing its farfetched premise. He offers Byron a job at his firm, Elysian Fields, which turns out to be a tony escort service. Byron, chagrined but desperate, reluctantly agrees and envisions he'll be dispatched to one of the wealthy grande dames who make up Luther's clientele. Andrea Alcott (Williams) turns out to be rich, young and beautiful; she's also the wife of a Pulitzer Prize-winning Hemingway-esque novelist Tobias Alcott (Coburn), who happens to be Byron's literary idol.
That the poised Andrea and the gruff, colorful Tobias are the epitome of worldliness and sophistication alleviates Byron's self-loathing. Meanwhile, Luther has grown weary of the escort business; he now personally takes care of only one client, the married, wealthy Jennifer (Huston), Elysian Fields' chief backer.
These developments are a prelude to bringing Byron and Luther to unexpected moments of truth for which neither is prepared. The way their fates play out reveals mature, wise perspective on life and human nature--and a surprisingly puritanical streak in regard to prostitution. The effect of this view, intended or otherwise, fortunately is dryly amusing rather than detrimental to the film.
The six key roles and some principal supporting parts are well-written and well-directed. Garcia's Byron is a likable guy who gets in over his head, and Garcia expresses all the ups and downs on his path toward wisdom. Jagger's Luther, Coburn's Tobias and Michael Des Barres, as one of Elysian Fields' veteran escorts, get the majority of shrewdly amusing lines.
Of Dena, whom he has never met, Tobias sagely warns Byron that a woman who accepts a man the way he is a woman who settles for less. Williams' Andrea is one cool customer, while Margulies' Dena is more innocent than even her husband. Jagger, whose screen appearances have been few but memorable, and Huston share one of the film's major moments--one that could easily have backfired--but they pull it off. Notable among a large supporting cast are Rosalind Chao and veterans Joe Santos and Richard Bradford.
"The Man From Elysian Fields" captures the ever-shifting fortunes that characterize life for so many in L.A. Silent star Antonio Moreno's Spanish-style mansion, though in Los Angeles, serves as the luxurious, isolated Pasadena estate.
MPAA rating: R, for language and sexual content. Times guidelines: mature themes, but little actual sex.
'The Man From Elysian Fields'
Andy Garcia...Byron Tiller
Mick Jagger...Luther Fox
Julianna Margulies...Dena Tiller
Olivia Williams...Andrea Alcott
James Coburn...Tobias Alcott
Anjelica Huston...Jennifer Adler
A Samuel Goldwyn Films/Fireworks presentation. Director George Hickenlooper. Producers Andrew Pfeffer, Donald Zuckerman, Andy Garcia/Cineson Productions. Executive producers Norm Waitt, Paul Brooks, Larry Katz, Morris Ruskin, Vicky Pike. Screenplay Philip Jayson Lasker. Cinematographer Kramer Morgenthau. Editor Michael Brown. Music Antony Marinelli. Costumes Matthew Jacobsen. Production designer Franckie Diago. Art director Jay Spratt. Set decorator Dara Waxman. Running time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.
At selected theaters.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times